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Buddhist Monastery in the Enchanted Forest

Buddhist Monastery in the Enchanted Forest
 
 

CROSSING the wide Perfume River by dragonboat, we passed a boat loaded to the brim with shingle. I noticed this boat had a bilge pump in operation. Given the freeboard of the boat stood five centimetres and seeing all the water being pumped out of the bilge, I was hoping that the pump wouldn’t break down otherwise the boat would sink within minutes.

Boat on the Perfume River
Boat on the Perfume River

As our boat approached the other side of the river, I could see thirteen motorbikes parked on the silted bank above the water. Beside each motorbike stood a rider, wearing an ironed pale blue long sleeved shirt. That was pretty odd for a group of riders I thought. I had heard a rumour we were going to be riding on motorbikes today, but refused to believe it. It just hadn’t sunken in.

I had only ever ridden a motorbike once before, and that was just a tiny minibike when I was a kid attending one of the summer camps I used to attend in my early teenage years. One particular summer I was at Wainui Bay, across the harbour from Akaroa on Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. We were in a small flat paddock having turns on these tiny mini bikes going around the paddock. It was nothing exciting, but I really didn’t develop any interest in motorbikes then, or ever since. I wasn’t too good on balance in riding push bikes either – I hadn’t ridden a bike for years. Now I was confronted with the concept of getting a ride on a motorbike here in the middle of Vietnam. I had already been here long enough to know that so far as motorbikes are concerned, no road rules applied other than riding on the right hand side of the road and having to wear a bicycle helmet.

Meeting our riders
Meeting our riders

Hopefully these motorbikes were powered using real fuel. I had seen numerous stalls around Hue and Hanoi with plastic bottles containing some cheap and extremely nasty looking fuel. It certainly wasn’t what you would want to put into any vehicle. The poor people here put that stuff into their motorbikes and somehow they still worked. Fortunately these motorbikes appeared fairly modern, so I hoped they were using good fuel.

The boat hit the silted ground on the other side of the river with the pagoda dominating the far shore behind us. We walked up the low river bank to where the motorbikes were parked. I could think of all sorts of places I’d rather be at this point, but one of the motorcyclists approached me. Pin was a man perhaps around my age (though it was really hard to tell with Vietnamese people as most of them appear so much younger than Westerners). He had quite a square face and had been well fed to the point of being a little overweight and stocky. He was rather short, even by Vietnamese standards.

Entrance to the temple
Entrance to the temple

Pin gave me a helmet to wear. Fortunately this was a lot more substantial than the bicycle helmets most people here seem to wear, but it didn’t have the chin guard you’d expect in a motorcycle helmet. He helped me strap it on with a little plastic clip that fitted rather uncomfortably on my chin. He climbed on the motorbike and gestured me to climb on behind him. I climbed on and wrapped my arms around his waist. There was nothing else to hold onto. I had seen numerous people here riding on the back holding the seat behind them, but that seemed very unsafe.

Moat around the temple
Moat around the temple

Then the motorbikes in front of me took off and my rider kicked the stand up and we were away. I was surprised by how quiet it was, but the ride along the muddy footpath was a bit too precarious for my liking. I just held on and watched the scenery whiz past. We got the occasional small branch of vegetation slapped in our faces, but otherwise it was a surprisingly smooth ride. A couple of minutes later I started to relax as I realised there was now a reasonable probability of me surviving this ordeal.

Overgrown garden at the temple
Overgrown garden at the temple

After some ten minutes of winding our way on the backs of motorbikes along the muddy trail through the forest, we suddenly stopped at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. The motorbikes parked and we got off them. Danh led us across the road – thankfully we were walking again, but I had been actually enjoying the ride on the back of the motorbike. I was a little shaken up though.

I could hear the soft chanting of a male choir coming from the other side of the road, somewhere deep in the forest before us. My guide Danh explained this was a Buddhist retreat and if we were lucky, we would see them performing a religious ceremony.

Monks chanting
Monks chanting

A three arched stone stood across the road. The centre door was locked but the doors on either side were open. It was made from solid marble, but mostly blackened from fungal decay. The sun symbol was still clearly visible though at the top panel of the entry. Other symbols were visible though faded in the side panels.

We walked through the archway and crossed a small bubbling stream rushing its way through the forest. We followed a short path through the forest going in between two pillars each with a single ball on top. Once through the pillars, we walked along a path around a large artificial pond to where the path continued on the other side. It had a marble retaining wall and low solid fence around it. The water was green and quite murky.

Monks chanting
Monks chanting
Bonsai trees
Bonsai trees

At the end of the pond, the path started climbing a stairway into the forest to some buildings which we could now just see through the thick forest. The trees here weren’t particularly big, perhaps ten metres high and trunks fifteen centimetres thick at the most.

Small pagoda
Small pagoda

The chanting was getting louder as we approached the buildings, then we could see some monks wearing reddish brown cloaks coming down to the ankles of their sandaled feet standing in a circle chanting. They were all wearing the Vietnamese conical straw hats.

We watched them in their loose circle performing for about a minute before they suddenly stopped and headed indoors. Danh reassured us they were just practicing out here, warming up their vocal chords, and that they will shortly be performing the ceremony inside the temple.

Bonsai trees by the temple
Bonsai trees by the temple

The temple buildings were all cream in colour, and blended in extremely well with the pale grey marble paving, and the trees that grew up all around. There were numerous pot plants of all sizes containing bonsai trees, palms and bamboos. There were rows of bonsai trees in particular giving a reversed forced perception. It seemed the buildings had been built around the trees, although the buildings were obviously a lot older than the trees. Everything seemed to be in perfect harmony with the forest here, as if this were a ruin where the jungle had overtaken, yet everything was immaculate with nothing at all out of place. This definitely was the kind of place you would seek harmonious balance no matter what you believed in.

Cemetery
Cemetery

We walked to the main temple and watched them assemble. We weren’t actually allowed inside the temple, but we had a very good view from some of the side entrances. Our entire group huddled in one of the entrances whilst another tour group huddled in the entrance opposite us.

The group of Buddhist worshippers gathered in formation, all facing a huge Buddha to their right. They were all dressed in bright pastel orange and yellow robes. They weren’t wearing shoes and their black hair was very short – not quite bald, but more like stubble left after having a number one blade over it. Maybe the shavers weren’t working today? The monks at the back were wearing white robes. Perhaps these were apprentices.

Tree with a statue
Tree with a statue

There were a few other statues around the main Buddha. There were also numerous candles, though they had been wired up with electrical lighting. They looked a bit tacky, but produced a lot more light than candles would have.

Some of the monks had drums, which they now started beating in a syncopated rhythm. Everyone then started singing a chant. I’m not sure whether they were just vocalisations or actual songs in the Vietnamese language. Either way it was very beautiful music, and although I’m not of the Buddhist persuasion, I felt the music ministering me strangely in a similar manner to the music of a pipe organ in a majestic cathedral. This truly was a spiritual moment, the Buddhist monks chanting in the temple in the forest.

Landscaping around the temple
Landscaping around the temple

We eventually left the temple as they continued chanting, and walked to the right of the temple surrounded by potted bonsai trees and with various types of lantern hanging from the guttering. We followed a path gradually downhill to a Buddhist cemetery. This was an amazing place with all the stonework eroded and covered in thick moss. The trees were covered in moss as well. If I didn’t know I was just a few metres above sea level, this could have passed as being within cloud forest as found a thousand metres above sea level in New Zealand.

Moat
Moat

Danh showed us a hollow knotted fig tree with a small white statue built inside it. This was quite amazing. I had seen similar small Buddhist temples outside people’s houses in the cities, but not there in the forest.

We left the cemetery and climbed further downward to the pond we had passed on the way in. I noticed now that the track led into stairs going down into the pond, as if it were a huge baptismal. It was a bit too grotty for that though. Perhaps it was a bath.

Temple in the forest
Temple in the forest

We walked around the pond back to the main track as the music in the temple continued. We returned to the motorbikes where all the riders in pale blue ironed shirts were standing waiting for us. I suddenly realised I hadn’t gotten a good look at my rider. I only got to see the back of his helmet. Fortunately though he recognised me and gave me my helmet to put on. Again he helped me put it on.

Suddenly the serenity of the enchanted temple in the forest gave way to the gentle roar of the motorbike as we sped away through the forest.

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Date:

 

Location: Country:

 

Latitude: Longitude: Altitude:

15 October 2009

 

Hue

Vietnam

 

16°26'46"N
107°32'38"E
16m ASL

 

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